Jan. 18 the Biden administration announced plans to distribute 400 million N95 masks free of charge in pharmacies and health centers across the U.S. This would be the largest deployment of personal protective equipment (PPE) in U.S. history. According to the plan, each individual can claim up to three free N95 masks in select stores, depending on availability. The 400 million masks come from the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS), a federal infrastructure that stores products like PPE and ventilators for use in public health emergencies.
The plan was proposed in part to combat the recent surge of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which resulted in more than 807,000 new cases a day in the U.S. at its peak in mid-January, according to the New York Times. According to the CDC, N95 masks are more effective than regular cloth masks at preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Many national pharmacy chains such as CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid are partners in this program. Fraser Engerman, senior director of external relations at Walgreens, said via email that the company has a list of Walgreens stores that carry free N95 masks.
Engerman said although he cannot provide the exact numbers of masks currently being distributed, Walgreens prioritizes providing masks to neighborhoods with a high Social Vulnerability Index (SVI). SVI is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) index that accounts for factors like poverty rate, age structure and minority population of neighborhoods to map out communities that would need the most support when a hazardous event strikes. In 2018, LA County had the 21st highest SVI out of all 58 California counties. The higher its SVI, the more vulnerable a region is to disasters. Within LA County, Eagle Rock was placed in the third quartile in terms of SVI, meaning the community is more vulnerable than 50 to 75 percent of all LA neighborhoods.
Monica Prinzing, senior manager for corporate communications in the western region for CVS, said via email that CVS began distributing free masks in late January, with the intention to have nearly 9,800 CVS stores around the U.S. carry free masks for collection.
Romeo Deguzman is an Eagle Rock resident who received his free masks from the CVS store at 2240 York Blvd. Deguzman, who works at a caregiving center, said he took the free masks to protect the elderly he works with, as N95 masks are highly protective.
“As long as there is COVID-19, anywhere I go, I will still wear it,” Deguzman said. “I only don’t wear it when I’m inside my car, when I’m inside my home.”
According to Occidental public health professor Nicole Vick, it would have been ideal if the federal government had begun distributing masks before Christmas instead of starting in recent weeks, since the Omicron surge appears to have already peaked in the U.S. If these masks had arrived before the surge, it could have be more helpful in combating the highly infectiousOmicron variant.
“In LA County, [infection] numbers got really high for the new year, so it would have been perfect for this to happen then,” Vick said.
Vick said ultimately, distributing masks needs to go hand in hand with other federal and state policies to bring down COVID-19 infection rates.
“It won’t just be the mask. It’s the mask and vaccination,” Vick said. “It’s policies around social distancing, the requirements for events with large numbers of people — all these policies work together.”
How masks get distributed once they are in stores is also an important logistical detail, according to Vick, and it can be hard to keep track of who has already received their allotment of masks.
“Maybe they should take this to the vaccination sites and give them out there,” Vick said.
According to Engerman and Prinzing, people do not need to present any ID to claim their masks at Walgreens and CVS. Engerman said it is up to the customers themselves to honor the limit of three masks per person.
Stores around Occidental that may carry free N95 masks include: CVS on 4414 York Blvd., (323) 344-4443; CVS on 2240 Fairpark Ave., (323) 254-7346; Rite Aid on 4044 Eagle Rock Blvd., (323) 254-8642. Please call the stores before visiting to confirm the availability of masks – new shipments may arrive and existing stock may deplete. For a more comprehensive list of locations in NELA that may carry free N95 masks, visit tinyurl.com/yc826zuz.